Lance Lundsten: What killed him?
When Lance Lundsten, a gay high-schooler from Miltona, died on Saturday, it kicked off a renewed national debate about bullying, gay youth, and suicide.
KSAX, the ABC news affiliate in nearby Alexandria, reported on Monday that Lundsten's death was likely a suicide, relying on an interview with the Douglas County sheriff's office. Facebook pages started by Lundsten's classmates at Jefferson High connected his death to bullying at school.
But Lundsten's hometown newspaper isn't playing along. For days now, the Alexandria Echo Press has been running a story with the headline 18-year-old from Miltona, Minn., dies from medical condition.
Its source? A member of Lundsten's family, who told Echo Press editor Al Edenloff that was the official word from the Douglas County medical examiner, who performed Lundsten's autopsy.
Here's the thing, though: The Echo Press never talked to the medical examiner himself. As KSAX reported the next day, he says Lundsten didn't die of an enlarged heart. The examiner, Dr. Mark Spanbauer, repeated the conclusion to City Pages today: "The cause of death is unknown. Everything is pending."
But the Echo Press seems untroubled by this information, making no correction to its misleading story. In fact, the paper is doubling down on its position, running an editorial today that repeats the debunked story that Lundsten died because of an enlarged heart.
The paper also ran a story entitled School copes with loss of 18-year-old that makes no mention of the abundant accusations on Facebook and in the news that the school has a bullying problem. Like every story the Echo Press has written about Lundstrom, it makes no mention that the teen was gay.
The main gist of the editorial is dedicated to excoriating the students who posted about Lundsten's death on Facebook and the global internet response that followed.
"They should have asked themselves if they would have liked the same kind of unsubstantiated rumors swirling around about someone in their own family," the editorial reads.
It's true that Lundsten's death has not yet been ruled a suicide--toxicology test results aren't expected back for more than a month. But the Echo Press has been insisting all week that Lundsten's death wasn't a suicide, without even bothering to pick up the phone and call the medical examiner. Isn't that rush to judgment exactly what they're accusing Lundsten's classmates of doing on Facebook?
"Absolutely not," Edenloff told City Pages today. "I'd much rather report what a family member said than a bunch of kids who didn't even know what he was all about."
Edenloff says the coverage by KSAX and the internet response to the story have painted Jefferson High School and the city of Alexandria unfairly.
"The school and the city have been portrayed as really backwards on this," Edenloff says. "The idea that we're a backwoods little punkwood town that doesn't know how to deal with these issues is totally false."
KSAX news director Cristi Jessee says the Echo Press's defensiveness is exactly the wrong approach to this story. She has interviewed current and former students of Jefferson High who say bullying is a problem ignored by the school's administration. But despite daily requests for an interview, she has yet to hear back from the school superintendent.
"We're diminishing vulnerable students who are screaming for help under the guise that this is all happening on Facebook," she says. "We're not focusing on the larger issue at hand: Students are talking, and those in power do not seem to be listening."
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